When Deron Williams harkens back to his days in Utah, one game stands out above all the rest: Game 7 of the 2007 Western Conference quarterfinals
In the Jazz’s decisive 103-99 road victory over the Rockets, the superstar point guard scored 20 points and dished out 14 assists, propelling Utah to its first playoff series win since 2000.
“It was the high point of my career there,” Williams, who will make his return to Utah as a member of the Nets on Saturday night, said in an interview with the YES Network.
The Jazz advanced all the way to the ’07 conference finals, before their season ended at the hands of the eventual NBA champion Spurs.
Four-and-a-half years later, though, the Jazz’s thrilling playoff run is nothing but a distance memory.
Times have changed.
On Feb. 23, 2011 -- two weeks after his halftime argument with coach Jerry Sloan in Chicago that may or may not have prompted Sloan to announce his resignation after 23 seasons a day later -- the Jazz stunned Williams by trading him to the Nets in exchange for point guard Devin Harris, power forward Derrick Favors, a pair of first-round draft picks and cash.
Williams found out he’d been dealt while watching SportsCenter. His wife was about to give birth to the couple’s fourth child, and yet, he had to move across the country on a moment’s notice. Williams was devastated. He was upset.
And who could blame him?
Williams, though, has since warmed up to the idea of committing to the Nets’ organization long-term. He has made it known that he’ll opt out of his contract at the end of the season -- he can get one-year and $30 million more on his deal if he re-signs, so it’s a sound business decision -- but has reiterated that he wants to stay, assuming general manager Billy King can put the right pieces around him.
The Nets have made it known that they want Williams to be the face of the franchise when the team moves to Brooklyn in 2012-13. And they would love to pair him with Magic center Dwight Howard, forming the NBA’s most dominant point guard-center tandem.
But after Orlando ownership nixed a three-way blockbuster proposal in the offseason that would’ve brought Howard to New Jersey, and with 23-year-old center Brook Lopez -- the Nets’ main trade chip in the deal -- still out with a broken foot, that’s just a pipe-dream for now. And the reality is that the Nets -- as currently constituted -- are far from a playoff-contender, especially without Lopez.
A little more than a sixth of the way through the 2011-12 campaign the Nets are 3-9. They’ve battled a myriad of injuries, and with their rotation constantly in flux as a result, have yet to develop chemistry with one another. And without much help other than from breakout rookie MarShon Brooks, Williams has gotten off to the worst start of his career. The constant double-teams he’s had to face on a nightly basis haven’t helped.
Even after his best game as a Net -- a 35-point, 14-assist, two-turnover effort over 41 minutes in a 110-103 win over the Steve Nash-less Phoenix Suns on Friday night -- the two-time All-Star ranks 107th in the NBA in field goal percentage (38.1) and second in turnovers (48).
Many times this season, Williams has been spotted sulking and looking frustrated on the bench. He’s been told that needs to stop. His body language has to get better.
But for a player that has won at every level of his basketball career, that’s easier said than done.
“It's a fine line,” Williams told reporters on Friday morning. “People think I'm just being an ass----, but I just hate to lose. I just don't like losing. I don't sleep well when I lose. It just affects everything I do. So we've got to turn it around.”
Of course, Jazz fans could care less about how bad Williams has it. Many of them wish they still had Williams and his dynamic playmaking ability on their favorite team, which is why he thinks there will be some boos mixed in with cheers when he’s introduced in the starting lineup. Plus, there’s the whole Sloan fiasco and the “coach killer” label, fair or not. And don’t forget the reason why Utah said it dealt Williams: it thought he was going to walk in free agency and it didn’t want to lose him for nothing.
“I think it'll be a little bit of mixed reviews, you know mixed emotions,” Williams told reporters. “Some people hate me, some people love me. It's what happens in any situation, I guess.”
For Williams, the future is bright, whether he stays with the Nets or not. There are going to be several suitors clamoring for his services, and he’ll likely be playing a team that has a chance to make a postseason run.
But on Saturday night, Williams will have a chance to harken back on the past.
The Jazz took him with the third overall pick in the 2005 draft because they thought he could be a superstar, and he fulfilled that potential, getting a fat four-year, $70 million extension in the process.
“I’m excited about it,” Williams said. “I get a chance to play in Utah. I spent the first part of my career [there]. They gave me a chance. My first chance, my first opportunity, my first big contract. So I owe them a lot, I’m looking forward to going back and playing.”
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